“Big City” Libertarianism

The Libertarian Party (LP) is the third largest political party in the United States, with a membership that’s twice as large as the Green Party and twenty times as large as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Unlike the Greens and DSA, which draw a significant support from urban areas, the LP is significantly more popular in suburban and rural areas. Some believe this distribution of support is inevitable, as city residents rely on government more than rural their counterparts—but, it isn’t. The Libertarian party can reframe its values for urban populations, and develop an urban agenda rooted in social tolerance, good governance and urban empowerment. This will allow it to emerge as the most viable alternative to the two-party duopoly gripping municipal, urban politics around the country today.

Social Tolerance

Many people think that libertarian culture and the culture of our nation’s biggest cities are at odds because libertarianism is so often framed as a philosophy rooted in “rugged self-reliance” and urbanites are anything but “self-reliant” since they rely on large-scale, networked, complex supply chains to sustain themselves. In reality, libertarian philosophy is much more focused on people’s ability to self-organize  complex systems to meet their own needs through the “market” than it is on the notions of “self-sufficiency”. The same market forces that libertarians are so interested in understanding and utilizing are also the forces that make modern, urban life possible. As such, “Big City” Libertarianism should sideline aesthetics and notions of self-reliance and instead focus on how market forces and technological innovation can be best utilized to benefit all city residents.

Libertarians also need to interpret urban experiences from a libertarian lens to show urban residents that they share have libertarian tendencies and values. The core principle of libertarianism is that individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. Sometimes this is called the “non-aggression principle”. Other times it’s referred to as just plain old “tolerance and acceptance.” Residents of big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami know that if their neighbors didn’t have tolerance for (and even love of) diverse lifestyles, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, philosophies, religions, etc, their cities simply couldn’t function. While Democrats attempt to talk the talk of “social progressivism”, the Libertarian Party has walked the walk: nominating the first female Vice-Presidential candidate in the 1970s, supporting gay rights in the 1980, fighting to end the drug war in the 1990s and opposing the war in Iraq in the 2000s. Big City Libertarians should highlight the progressive history of the Libertarian Party and not be afraid to denounce regressive cultural elements in the party’s past and present.

To win hearts and minds in our nation’s cities, Big City Libertarians should focus their energies on issues where urban “progressives” are more aligned with the Libertarian Party than they are the Democratic Party. The “Drug War” and the resulting mass incarceration and police militarization it has spawned presents such an opportunity.

The drug war has fallen out of favor among intelligentsia concerned with public health because of an increasingly broad body of research showing that the Portuguese and Northern European approach of decriminalization and risk reduction is producing superior outcomes in every way: less drug use, less crime and less healthcare costs. The drug war is also falling out of favor among the young and “social justice progressives” because they recognize it as a method of social control – oppressing the most vulnerable and marginalized populations throughout the US. The numbers are staggering: black men are incarcerated at rates over 5x that of whites, even though they use drugs in comparable quantities. While many Democrats now support some type of marijuana decriminalization, almost all still support the drug war’s prohibitionist approach to “controlled substances.” Big City Libertarians should lead on issues of mass incarceration and police militarization, and offer something no political party has yet — a powerful solution: Ending the Drug War.

Good Governance

New York City, like many large cities throughout the US, is dominated by the Democratic Party. That means political bosses and party elite pick our politicians, and voters have little power to challenge the status quo. That’s one reason why NYC’s voter participation rate in local elections is under 25%. New Yorkers want more political options, but they certainly aren’t coming from the Republicans who maintains a hierarchical party infrastructure that benefits from maintaining the status quo. Many politically active urban residents have invested significant time in the project of reforming the Democratic Party, but their success has been minimal and frustration is high. Big City Libertarians should present themselves as the anti-corruption, good-government party.

By organizing local Libertarian Party chapters around values of openness, transparency, participatory governance, and by utilizing appropriate technologies to run themselves faster, better and cheaper than the competition, local LP chapters can become more effective effective political operations while also training their members in the same type of technology-enabled reform that we can pitch to voters as a solution to corrupt local politicians and lethargic, bloated bureaucracies.

Urban Empowerment

With Trump as president, many city residents have awoke to the fact that there are many layers of government – and these various layers don’t always agree or collaborate with each other. They’re realizing that they’d much prefer a structure where the federal government has less power and municipal governments have a lot more. This emerging “municipalism” is entirely consistent with libertarianism for two reasons. First, it localizes power and decreases the number of people each politician represents, making politicians and government more accountable. Second, it reduces the size and scope of the federal government, which is something every Libertarian supports.

By advocating at the national level for more local control of tax revenue, Libertarians can be inclusive of their rural and suburban bases, while maintaining a flexibility that allows them to advance in urban politics. Local control shouldn’t simply mean more policies are determined at local levels (although this is obviously a part of it), but should result in restructuring the tax system to shift the destination of tax revenue from the Federal government to state and local government.

Let’s call this “flipping the pyramid.”

Currently, the federal government gets most of the tax money, then states and lastly cities. This status quo should be flipped on its head so that the federal government receive the least amount of tax revenue, allowing states and local governments to gain significantly more. Now, many rural and suburban localities don’t want or need big local governments, and voters in those places can direct their governments not to raise taxes – leaving them with a significantly lower tax burden than city residents.

For example, a New York City resident who currently pays 20% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 5% to local government (for a total of 35%), would instead give 5% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 20% to the city (total remains 35%). This restructuring would allow New Yorkers to achieve more local control, sustain or even increase the level of services they receive, while still paying the same total amount in taxes. Meanwhile, a resident of Grafton, New Hampshire, who is currently paying 20% to the Feds, 7.5% to the State and 2.5% to their county (30% total) could then be paying 5% to the federal government, 5% to the state and 5% locally (15% total) – resulting in a massive tax break for them. So, for the New York City resident, the Libertarian plan might not lead to a tax decrease, but instead lead to a drastically better funded city government, while to the rural Grafton resident, the Libertarian plan does lead to a massive tax break. Big City Libertarians and small-government Libertarians can collaborate deeply on “flipping the pyramid” at the national level, and then both achieve their separate goals at the local level in their own communities.

The “regional differentiation” that will naturally arise when localities have more power to determine their overall tax rate is something we should all embrace. Instead of imposing our ideals on everyone in the country through the federal government, we should view people’s residency as a political choice. If people chose to live in a city or state with high taxes, they’re voluntarily accepting the high taxes. If they don’t want to pay those taxes, then they can move to a place with lower ones. This act of voting with one’s feet is the oldest manifestation of democracy, and the idea that people should actually get up and move from places that don’t share their values to places that do should be embraced, encouraged, supported and maybe even subsidized.

While that might sound drastic or raise the specter of places becoming truly inhospitable to certain types of people in ways that they currently are not, we should recognize that (a) this process is already well underway for middle and upper class people who can afford to move, and (b) our nation’s structural resistance to regional differentiation has led to over a decade of Congressional gridlock and a vicious culture war that put a reality-TV show host into the presidency.

This doesn’t mean that the federal government should stop performing critical functions such as upholding the civil and human rights of US citizens, investigating corruption of state and local officials, regulating interstate commerce, helping with disaster relief and more. Rather, it means that the we must begin in earnest a visioning process that redraws the appropriate scope of local, city, regional, state and federal powers. While working to implement this new vision, we should also be investing our time and resources into upgrading the capacities of local layers of government so they’ll be able to absorb new responsibilities and effectively allocate more resources. Anyone involved with local politics knows that it can be just as corrupt, and even more so, than national politics. That’s why our strategy must also include a movement to transform local governments into open, transparent and participatory institutions that good people want to join and lead.

With over 135 million Americans living in metropolitan areas of over a million people, the Libertarian Party has everything to gain by creating a space for “Big City” Libertarianism to flourish.

Imagining SimNYCity

I was eight years old when I first encountered a computer game called “SimCity.” The general premise of the game was that you were the mayor of a virtual city, and you would use game money to create a place for communities of “Sims” to live. First you set up basic infrastructure like roads, pipes, and zoning and soon after, the “Sims” would arrive to build buildings and pay taxes. As tax revenue flowed in, you would use it to make citywide improvements by establishing public infrastructure like schools, hospitals and parks. The more robust your city’s services, the more Sims would want to live there, and the more taxes revenue would roll in. As the game progressed and your city grew, your decisions as mayor became increasingly complex. However, an easy-to-use interface simplified the tasks and made the whole experience a lot of fun.

That was 1994, and at the time, I assumed that one day, my neighbors and I would all have a hand in understanding and shaping New York City through tools and interfaces like SimCity’s. As the internet was getting increasingly popular, my confidence in that idea strengthened. How difficult could it possibly be for the biggest city in the world’s richest country to create “Sim NYCity”? Well, it’s been over two decades and it still doesn’t exist. I’m getting tired of waiting.

Thanks to the tireless work of open source software developers and open government advocates, the development of a SimNYCity system has never been easier. Let me explain a few of the features that would make such a system such a valuable contribution to civic life.

Interactive Community Maps

The centerpiece of the system is a map similar to Google Maps or the City’s Planning Lab’s new Community District Profiles website. It would have highly curated data layers that display education, health, police, fire and mass transit indicators (in SimCity parlance: data maps), as well as useful demographic information of residents. Anyone could click a few layers on and off to see which neighborhoods have access to which services, and which don’t. Users could select which facilities they’d like to see added to an area, and then receive a projection of how the addition of such a facility would impact access in the neighborhood. Of course, accurate projections would be difficult to create, but basic estimates wouldn’t be, and more importantly, the existence of such a tool would whet the public’s appetite for more information and involvement in planning processes.

Citizen-Driven Budgets

Offering opinions on the budget could be as easy as pulling a few sliders.

Managing the budget was one of the most important jobs of the mayor in SimCity. The tool for doing this was similar to a mortgage calculator. Income and expenses were presented with about 10 line items each, and you could pull the slider in one direction or another to change funding allocations and see how those allocation impact the entire city’s budget.

We should offer a similar tool to New Yorkers. We can synthesize the NYC budget from thousands of line items into a dozen or so, enabling anyone to quickly see how money flows in and out of NYC’s government. Then we can invite them to create their budget by pulling sliders. As they do, the city’s budget projections change. So, if someone would like to increase the education budget they would toggle education to the right. Then they might adjust income by increasing taxes to balance the budget. Bonds could be included into the mix too by showing a list of public bond offers and requests. This type of tool would allow New Yorkers to create the budgetary mixes they want to see, and they can share it with others. We could also generate statistics about all the different budgets New Yorkers create to develop insights about how the city’s budget could more accurately reflect the values of the city’s residents.

Decision-Making Moments

City advisers could send out messages to New Yorkers and ask for their direct feedback.

When time sensitive decisions were needed in Sim City, a popup would appear with a message from an adviser asking the mayor for a decision. “SimNYCity” could work similar by providing citizens with more opportunities to indicate their preferences on key civic issues. For example, when a controversial zoning change is being proposed, an alert from the Commissioner of City Planning could be sent to SimNYCity users saying something like: “Residents are wondering what you plan to do with the Bedford Armory. Here’s some information about the various interest groups. Do you think the current proposals should move forward or should it be rewritten?” Users could then say how they feel. This type of feedback could provide useful information for city leaders that they could incorporate into their decision-making processes. A similar workflow could be used for legislative and administrative decision-making.

Moving Beyond the Vote

Imagine if all the active and proposed city ordinances were laid out in a simple list.

Our current democratic processes are, unfortunately, failing New York City. Less than 25% of eligible New Yorkers voted in the last election cycle. In this cycle, over 95% of incumbents won their primaries and it appears that over 95% of general election races will be uncompetitive. This means that a very small group of (almost entirely Democratic) party insiders are the people determining who will serve in New York City government. That isn’t very democratic, and it’s the main reason so few New Yorkers show up to the polls.

We don’t have to wait for deep reforms to our city’s democratic process before we start experimenting with new and innovative ways to provide participatory democratic experiences to New Yorkers. We can offer citizens methods for engagement right now – and if these methods turn out to be popular, then we can organize the public to pressure existing politicians into incorporating these methods into their decision-making processes. If politicians don’t want to use popular new processes, then we should vote new people into office who will.

One political position that’s perfectly positioned to bring more participatory tools and techniques into the heart of New York City’s government is the Public Advocate. This city-wide elected official is supposed to be the “direct link between the electorate and city government, effectively acting as an ombudsman, or “watchdog,” for New Yorkers.

That’s why I’m running for NYC Public Advocate as someone who will “put process before politics” and explore innovative ways to incorporate the public’s opinions into city decision-making. I’m convinced that, if we can make local politics more engaging and fun, then more New Yorkers will educate themselves about the city, participate in important civic conversations and demand a more direct democracy for New York City.

OpEd: Disaster Preparedness Requires a 211 System; New York City Still Doesn’t Have One

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017

Over the last few weeks, New Yorkers have watched with great anxiety as Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, among many other places, were pummeled by massive hurricanes. Whenever we see storm destruction, memories of Sandy re-enter our consciousness; as does the question: Is New York City significantly better prepared for the next big one? My answer is “No.”

As a technology professional in disaster management, I’m constantly on the lookout for better ways to use software tools and information management practices to improve a city’s resilience. With new technologies coming out all the time, there are many pathways for improvement, and selecting the right place to focus preparedness efforts is never easy. In New York City’s case, however, it’s pretty simple: one of the most impactful things we could do, and certainly the lowest hanging fruit, is to build a canonical directory of all the health, human, and social services available in New York City so people know where to go to get the services they need before, during, and after a disaster.

The directory system I’m proposing is often called a “211 system.” In almost every major U.S. city and in over 90% of counties, if you call 2-1-1, you’re connected to a directory assistance representative that can refer you to the health and social services that meet your needs. If you call 2-1-1 in New York City, you’re connected to our 311 system — which is good at providing basic information about government services, but isn’t able to refer you to the vast majority of nonprofit services available in the city.

211 systems are essential infrastructure for any coherent social safety net. Indeed, without them we don’t even know what the social safety net looks like! These systems enable people to find a huge array of help for a broad collection of things, including: housing, employment, food, children’s services, domestic violence counseling, and so much more.

Without a 211, social workers are left to solve this information problem on their own. Many create their own lists on paper and in Word documents that they share with each other. Some organizations maintain resource directories for certain kinds of people or neighborhoods. Well-funded institutions even pay for-profit companies to find this information and provide it to their clientele.

Our lack of a real 211 system is a hindrance to every nonprofit and government service provider, and an embarrassment to every politician who claims to care about New Yorkers in need. If they really cared, wouldn’t they make sure it was possible for every New Yorker to actually find the services they’re entitled to receive?

Prosperous and powerful New Yorkers tend to be unaware that the city lacks a 211 system because they rarely, if ever, use nonprofit social services. But when a disaster like Sandy happens, many people who never before needed access to nonprofit services suddenly do. Because of this dynamic, 211 systems serve extremely important functions during disaster recovery by providing a canonical sources of information about services for survivors. They also tend to become the centers that convene and facilitate collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and community groups.

211 systems in New Jersey and Long Island played this role after Sandy, and by most accounts their recoveries went much smoother than New York City’s. In New York City, no local entity took responsibility for organizing all the nonprofit service information, which led to a massive coordination crisis. Things got so bad that some intrepid FEMA staff created a 211-style services directory themselves, even though it was so far outside their traditional responsibilities that they had to pretend that other organizations had created it out of fear of political backlash. To this day, no one in city government or the nonprofit establishment has taken responsibility for these coordination failures. Nor has any agency or organization taken responsibility for ensuring that it never happens again.

While incremental improvements in disaster management and recovery processes have certainly been adopted over the last five years, one of the most important Sandy lessons is that New York City desperately needs a fully-funded and well-functioning 211 system. Until we have one, New York City cannot claim to be following even the most basic best practices in disaster preparedness.


Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017

Photo: After Sandy (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)

It’s Time for a “Participatory” Democracy Instead of our “Consumer” One

This article was originally published September 16, 2017 at Education Update

Democracy in the United States was established nearly 250 years ago when news traveled at the speed of a horse and real-time collaboration required sharing a physical location. Today, ubiquitous internet access, smartphones, social media, and online collaboration tools have transformed how we work, play and consume, but the basic structure of our politics remains the same.

The result is that during an era of massive innovation, our static politics have disempowered the public and made our representative democracy feel more like a “consumer” one. Parties are brands; politicians are products; and our job as consumer-citizens is to purchase “our” politician with our votes. U.S. media and education systems strengthen the notion of “consumer democracy” by obsessing over the theatrics that motivate people to vote instead of educating people about the issues, policies and processes that impact all our lives. The public is not pleased. Congress and the President’s approval ratings are at record lows, as are voter participation rates.

How can democracies use technologies to strengthen themselves? Answers are emerging around the world, with the central theme being that technology can make politics more engaging, successful and legitimate by enabling people to become active producers of political outcomes instead of passive consumers. 

Two examples of “participatory democracy” are taking place in Taiwan and Madrid. In Taiwan, the “vTaiwan” project encourages the public to participate in a multi-month, multi-phase “consultation process” where citizens give issue-specific feedback offline and online. They use that feedback to create their own legislative and administrative proposals, and the most popular proposal are ratified and implemented by the government. Over the last three years, tens of thousands of people have participated, resulting in more than a dozen new laws and administrative actions. In Madrid, city government built a platform that enables citizens to debate issues and propose legislation. If that legislation meets a popularity threshold, it automatically becomes law.

Surprisingly, there are few if any truly participatory political projects in the United States. While New York City has “participatory budgeting,” its many restrictions and limited scope makes it fundamentally different than the open-ended participatory processes practiced overseas.

New York City’s Public Advocate is supposed to be the voice of all New Yorkers. As such, it’s the perfect position to bring a technology-enabled collective decision-making process to our City. Since it’s democratically elected, the Public Advocate can give “participatory democracy” real legitimacy. And since it has consultative status with the City Council and many city agencies, the Public Advocate can bring the public’s will directly to the people who run our city.

I’m running for Public Advocate to put “participatory democracy” on the ballot in November. With your help, we can put the Public exactly where it should be — directly in charge of the Public Advocate.

 

Devin Balkind works at the intersection of the nonprofit sector, the open-source movement, and grassroots community organizing to share and initiate best practices. He currently serves as president of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces open source information management system for disaster relief and humanitarian aid. He is running for NYC 2017 Public Advocate.

This article was originally published September 16, 2017 at Education Update

Devin Balkind runs for 2017 NYC Public Advocate

Contact: kate@votedevin.com, 917.284.8423

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Meet “The Politician in Your Pocket” at VoteDevin.com

 

September 14, NYC.   “I’m running as a politician you can reach with your smartphone — a ‘facilitator’ rather than a ‘representative’ to give New Yorkers a voice and new ways to participate, reach consensus, and get what they need.”  With leadership and expertise in using technology to bring communities together, Devin Balkind is running for New York City Public Advocate in 2017 in order to:

  1. Put the public in charge of the Public Advocate’s office;
  2. Deliver results, not rhetoric; and
  3. Hold government accountable the “open source” way.

A cornerstone of his candidacy is to have the City use smartphone and web applications that bring New Yorkers together to decide what the priorities of the Public Advocate should be and provide solutions accordingly. Devin’s approach looks similar to how technology startups and open source communities get things done rather than traditional political campaigns.

1. Put the Public in Charge of the Public Advocate’s Office
Devin says: “While we can’t get everyone to agree on political issues and parties, we can bring people together around better processes for building consensus about what should be done and for holding public officials accountable for delivering real results.” Devin wants to “put process before politics” by using facilitation techniques and software technologies that enable the public to identify and prioritize issues they want the Public Advocate to address as well the actions they want the office to perform.  He is committed to following the public’s lead instead of the lead of advisers, political consultants and local power brokers.

“The future of politics is about meaningful and engrossing engagement that turns the public’s interests into actions and their actions into real results. If we don’t make political participation entertaining then politics will be dominated by entertainers with no real aptitude for the job and that can lead to grim results.”

2. Deliver Results, Not Rhetoric

Technology makes it possible for a small office like the Public Advocate to have an enormous impact on the entire city. “The city releases a vast amount of data into the public domain, and, now, thanks to sophisticated yet accessible software, we can turn that into information the public can use to accomplish a variety of things, including: identifying waste, fraud and abuse; evaluating the success of projects and programs; and so much more.” Instead of talking about these opportunities, Devin’s campaign is already seizing them by producing web applications. One example is his “Capital Project Budget Database” that allows the public to quickly browse and easily comment on nearly ten thousand capital projects that have received budget commitments from NYC government. “Our project database empowers New Yorkers to be watchdogs, analysts and investigators.” People are invited to browse this database at projects.votedevin.com and add comments and questions to the various projects.

By leveraging existing open data resources and open source software applications, Devin can do a lot with a little, improving services while reducing costs. “Telling agencies about good technology solutions isn’t enough. We’ll show working demonstrations so New Yorkers can decide the value of civic technologies for themselves.”

3. Holding Government Accountable the Open Source Way

The open source movement is the unsung hero of the last two decades of technology development. Not only has it produced the internet, but also a myriad of websites and applications like Wikipedia, WordPress and Linux. Every cool new “app” uses a ton of open source components, and these apps are transforming everything from dating to transportation systems. One thing open source hasn’t transformed yet is politics — but we’re changing that.

Our campaign is using tools and techniques developed by the open source movement to hold the government accountable for its actions and make its operations faster, better and cheaper. We’re guided by a vision of turning politics from an act of “consumption,” where citizens purchase candidates every four years with their voters, into an act of “participation,” where citizens are constantly engaged, generating feedback, ideas, proposals and solutions. Devin believes that the Public Advocate and Borough Presidents, which are holdovers from the days of New York City’s Board of Estimate, are the perfect vehicles for instituting new participatory processes. Devin says, “Let’s create the Board of Estimate 2.0 where every New Yorker has the type of information and decision-making opportunities that the original Board of Estimate had.”

Devin continues, “We need to abandon the idea that voting every two to four years is enough to get the government we deserve. We need to elect politicians that commit to opening up the government and letting us in, so that we, the people, can participate in our own governance.”

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FOR MORE INFORMATION:  See votedevin.com/media for more information and images; follow Devin on Twitter @devinbalkind and Facebook.com/votedevin

CONTACT: kate@votedevin.com, 917.284.8423
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Occupy Sandy and the Rise of Open Aid at AIANY on 9/10/16

The AIANY invited me to present my perspective on Occupy Sandy at their event “Stand Up! How to be Part of the Solution after a Disaster.” My presentation argues that Occupy Sandy, and the mutual aid work of its predecessor Occupy Wall Street, were physical-world manifestations of the “Open Aid” trend taking place in the disaster relief and humanitarian aid sectors.

The presentation begins by pointing to the fact that “faith in institutions” is at an unprecedented low in the USA at the same time as our economy is being transformed by widespread access to networked communication technologies. These technologies enable autonomously organized, local grassroots disaster response efforts to network with each other to create a new type of entity that the Department of Defense is calling “Grassroots Disaster Relief Network” (GDRN). In the virtual world, networked communication technologies are also allowing people with specialized technical skills to organize themselves into groups that can provide information processing services through a wide variety of tools including social media, GIS and collaborative documents. These groups are called Volunteer Technical Communities  (VTCs).

I argue that GDRNs are a local/physical manifestation of the “Open Aid” concept, and VTCs are a global/digital one. Currently VTCs tend to serve formal response organizations such as UNOCHA, but in the not-too-distant future  they’ll be able to collaborate directly with GDRNs, giving disaster survivors and their communities unprecedented access to information.

The presentation ends with some suggestions for how we can set up simple, open source systems to streamline information flows related to disasters.

I gave a very similar presentation to disaster response personnel at the Disaster Preparedness Exchange in Indianapolis a week later.

Sahana Software Foundation Overview at the 2016 Global CAP Implementation Workshops on 8/22/2016

As president of the Sahana Software Foundation, I had the privilege of delivering a brief overview describing Sahana to the 2016 Global CAP Implementation Workshops held at the Asian Institute of Technology near Bangkok, Thailand. Slides are embedded below.

This conference was my first time engaging, in-person, with the disaster relief community outside the United States and I was extremely impressed. Unlike most conferences I attend in which there is an abstract “theme” with random and broad sessions, this conference had a laser-like focus on a very specific data standard called the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).  The goal of this protocol is to facilitate in the exchange of “all-hazard emergency alerts and public warnings over all kinds of networks.”

Presentations and discussion were focused on the design and implementation of this specific data standard. There  were also sessions organized in which stakeholders worked together to create field-by-field recommendations for how to improve future versions of CAP. The amount of information that was shared and the effective collaborations that took place were inspiring.

We need many many more events that are focused exclusively on the design and implementation of data standards within the disaster relief and resilience community. If we can come together to create  a shared language and set of data standards for our work, then information sharing will become radically easier. Easier information sharing leads to better situational awareness, more efficient resource distribution, and more positive outcomes.

I’m look forward to bringing some of the the tools and techniques I learned at this event back with me to the USA.

Introducing Data Models for Human(itarian) Services

This was originally posted at Sarapis

Immediately after a disaster, information managers collect information about who is doing what, where, and turn it into “3W Reports.” While some groups have custom software for collecting this information, the most popular software tool for this work is the spreadsheet. Indeed, the spreadsheet is still the “lingua franca” of the humanitarian aid community, which is why UNOCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange project is designed to support people using this popular software tool.

After those critical first few days, nonprofits and government agencies often transition their efforts from ad hoc emergency relief and begin to provide more consistent “services” to the affected population.

The challenge of organizing this type of “humanitarian/human services” information is a bit different than the challenges associated with disaster-related 3W reports, and similar to the work being done by people who manage and maintain persistent nonprofit services directories. In the US, these types of providers are often called “211” because you can dial “211” in many communities in the US to be connected to a call center with access to a directory of local nonprofit service information.

During the ongoing migrant crisis facing Europe, a number of volunteer technical communities (VTCs)  in the Digital Humanitarian Network engaged in the work of managing data about these humanitarian services. They quickly realized they needed to come up with a shared template for this information so they could more easily merge data with their peers, and also so that during the next disaster, they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel all over again.

Since spreadsheets are the most popular information management tool, the group decided to focus on creating a standard set of column headers for spreadsheets with the following criteria:

To create this shared data model, we analyzed a number of existing service data models, including:

  • Stand By Task Force’s services spreadsheet
  • Advisor.UNHCR services directory
  • Open Referral Human Service Data Standard (HSDS)

The first two data models came from the humanitarian sector and were relatively simple and easy to analyze. The third, Open Referral, comes from a US-based nonprofit service directory project that did not assume that spreadsheets would be an important medium for sharing and viewing data.

To effectively incorporate Open Referral into our analysis, we had to convert it into something that could be viewed in a single sheet of a spreadsheet (we call it “flat”). During the process we also made it compliant with the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL), which will enable Open Referral to collaborate more with the international humanitarian aid community on data standards work. Check out the Open Referral HSDS_flat sheet to see the work product.

We’re excited about the possibility that Open Referral will take this “flat” version under their wing and maintain it going forward.

Once we had a flat version of Open Referral, we could do some basic analysis of the three models to create a shared data model. You can learn about our process in our post “10 Steps to Create a Shared Data Model with Spreadsheets.”

The results of that work is what we’re calling the Humanitarian Service Data Model (HSDM). The following documents and resources (hopefully) make it useful to you and your organizations.

We hope the HSDM will be used by the various stakeholders who were involved in the process of making it, as well as other groups that routinely manage this type of data, such as:

  • member organizations of the Digital Humanitarian Network
  • grassroots groups that come together to collate information after disasters
  • big institutions like UNOCHA who maintain services datasets
  • software developers who make apps to organize and display service information

I hope that the community that came together to create the HSDM will continue to work together to create a taxonomy for #service+type (what the service does) and #service+eligibility (who the service is for). If and when that work is completed, digital humanitarians will be able to more easily create and share critical information about services available to people in need.

* Photo credits: John Englart (Takver)/Flickr CC-by-SA

Creating a Shared Data Model with a Spreadsheet

Over the last year, a number of clients have tasked me with bringing datasets from many different sources together. It seems many people and groups want to work more closely with their peers to  not only share and merge data resources, but to also work with them to arrive at a “shared data model” that they can all use to manage data in compatible ways going forward.

Since spreadsheets are, by far, the most popular data collection and management tool, using spreadsheets for this type of work is a no-brainer.

After doing this task a few times, I’ve gotten confident enough to document my process for taking a bunch of different spreadsheet data models and turning them in a single shared one.

Here is the 10-step process:

  1. Create a spreadsheet. First column is for field labels. You can add additional columns for other information you’d like to analyze about the field such as its data type, database name and/or reference taxonomies (i.e. HXL Tag).
  2. Place the names of the data models you’ve selected to analyze in the column headers to the right of the field labels.
  3. List all the fields of the longest data model on the left side of the sheet under the “Field Label” heading.
  4. Place an “x” in the cells of the data model that contain the field to indicate it contains all the fields documented in the left hand column.

    How to Create a Shared Data Model with Spreadsheets
    This is a sheet comparing three different data models with a set of field labels and a “taxonomy convention”.
  5. Working left to right, place an  “x” to indicate when a data model has a field label contained therein. If the data model has that field but uses a different label, place that label in the cell(4a). If it doesn’t have that field, leave the cell blank. Add any additional fields not in the first data model to the bottom of the Field Labels column (4b).

  6. Do the same thing for the next data models.
  7. Once you have all the data models documented in this way, then you can look and see what the most popular fields are by seeing which have the most “x”s. Drag those rows to the top, so the most popular fields are on the top, and the least popular fields are on the bottom. I like to color code them, so the most popular fields are one color (green), the moderately popular ones are another (yellow) and the least popular but still repeated fields are another (red).
  8. Once you have done all this, you should present it to your stakeholder community and ask them for feedback. Some good questions are: (a) If our data model were just the colored fields, would that be sufficient? Why or why not? What fields should we add or subtract? (b) Data model #1 uses label x for a field while data model #2 uses label y. What label should we use for this and why?

    How to Create a Shared Data Model with Spreadsheets (1)
    Give people a “template” they can use to actually manage their data.
  9. Once people start engaging with these questions, layout the emerging data model in a new sheet, horizontally in the first row. Call this sheet a “draft template”. Bring the color coding with it to make it easier for people to recognize that the models are the same. As people give feedback, make the changes to the “template” sheet while leaving the “comparison” sheet as a reference. Encourage people to make their comment directly in the cell they’re referencing.
  10. Once all comments have been addresses and everyone is feeling good about the template sheet, announce that sheet is the “official proposal” of a shared data model/standard. Give people a deadline to make their comments and requests for changes. If no comments/changes are requested – congratulations: you have created a shared data model! Good luck getting people to use it. 😉

Do you find yourself creating shared data models? Do you have other processes for making them? Did you try out this process and have some feedback? Is this documentation clear? Tell me what you’re thinking in the comments below.

DIY Databases are Coming

“The software revolution has given people access to countless specialized apps, but there’s one fundamental tool that almost all apps use that still remains out of reach of most non-programmers — the database.” AirTable.com on CrunchBase

Database technology is boring but immensely important. If you have ever been working on a spreadsheet and wanted to be able to click on the contents of a cell to get to another table of data (maybe the cell has a person’s name and you want to be able to click it to see their phone #, photo, email, etc), then you’ve wished for a DIY database.

I’ve been waiting for this technology for many years and am happy to report that it’s nearly arrived. Two startups are taking on the DIY database challenge from different sides:

Screenshot from 2016-01-20 18:20:27
If you can make a spreadsheet you can make a map with Awesome-Table.


Awesome-Table is a quick and easy tool for creating visualizations of data inside Google Sheets. It offers a variety of searchable, sortable, filterable views including tables, cards, maps and charts. They’re easy to embed so they are great for creating and embedding directory data onto websites. Here’s an awesome table visualization of
worker coops in NYC.


AirTable is a quick and easy way to create tables that connect to and reference each other. This allows for multi-faceted systems you can travel through by clicking on entities. For example, you can define people in one table, organizations in another, and offices in a third, and then connect them all together so a user can browse a list of people, click on an individual’s organization, and then see all that organization’s information, including its many offices. Pretty useful!

The progress of these two startups leads me to believe we’re less than a year or two away from truly lightweight, easy to use, free of cost, DIY database building systems, and an open source one not too long after that.

The increasing accessibility of database technology has a lot of implications. The most obvious one is that it will enable people to build their own information management systems for common use cases like contact directories, CRM systems and other applications that just can’t be done with existing spreadsheet technology. This will make a wide variety of solutions more accessible to people – so if you want to start or run a business, manage common information resource, or just organize personal information better, you’ll enjoy DIY databases very much.

More interesting to me is the implication that they can have for people trying to reform and democratize institutions.

If you spend time in the type of information management systems used by institutions big and small – whether it’s government agencies like the sanitation department or educational ones like high schools or universities, you’ll quickly notice that many of their most useful and critical tools are nothing more than a set of data tables (directories) and visualizations of the data contained therein (search/filterable tables, cards and maps of that data.)

Screenshot from 2016-01-20 18:19:07
Turn spreadsheets into searchable/filterable directories with Awesome-Table.

These very rudimentary but widely used internal software systems not only define the information people within that institution can access and share, but also limits them to very specific workflows that are implicitly or explicitly defined in the software. Since workflows define the work people actually do, the people who control the workflow are also people who control the workers.

If you want to change how an institution does things, you have to be able to change its information management systems. Since current database technology requires specialized software coding skills, changing these systems often turns into a bureaucratic nightmare filled with bottlenecks. First, a specific group of pre-approved people need to agree to design and fund a change, then another specific group of people need to program and implement the change, and yet another group is often tasked with training and supporting users who then have to use the updated system. That creates a lot of potential bottlenecks: executives who don’t know a change is needed or don’t care enough to fund the work; managers who don’t want to get innovated out of a job or don’t know how to design good software; technologists who don’t have the time to implement a change or don’t have the motivation to do the job right. With all those potential bottlenecks it’s easy to see why so many well funded institutions have such crappy software and archaic workflows.

When people try to improve institutions, they are often trying to improve workflows so more can get done with less time and resources. Unfortunately, the people who actually know what changes need to be made are rarely in a position to control the architecture of the databases they use to get things done.

With DIY databases, people within institutions can circumvent all these bottlenecks simply by making superior systems themselves. This can change a lot more than simply the type of information people have access to – it allows them to explore news ways of being productive.  What they’ll inevitably discover, particularly if they’re in an institution that spends a lot of time managing information, is that they can do a better job managing information than many of their bosses.

DIY databases are enabling the type of horizontal and bottom-up innovation essential not just for better functioning institutions, but also more democratic ones. Databases are the “means of production” for many information workers. When they can build and own their own ones, they’ll be able to achieve more ownership of their own work and take another big step towards being able to manage themselves.

Of course, as technology improves and creating you own databases becomes easy, the hard part will certainly become getting peers to use them.  That’s a topic for another day.